NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Southern Baptists gave 2.3 percent more to missions last year despite the economic downturn, but they lost members and baptized the fewest number of people since 1987, according to the denomination’s Annual Church Profile, the yearly statistical report compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in conjunction with 42 Baptist state conventions.
Total giving to missions reached $1.36 billion in 2008. Through the denomination’s Cooperative Program and special mission offerings, local churches voluntarily pool funds to support mission efforts in their states, throughout the nation and around the world. For example, Southern Baptists support more than 10,500 missionaries who engage nearly 1,200 people groups throughout North America and around the world.
In addition, Cooperative Program funds support six seminaries, the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and other SBC entities, with the exception of LifeWay and GuideStone Financial Resources, which are self-funding. At the state level, Cooperative Program funds support a variety of ministries, such as children’s homes, disaster relief efforts, colleges and universities.
The uptick in giving during a time of economic stress speaks well of Southern Baptists, said Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay.
“Southern Baptists are among the most generous and mission-minded people in the world,” Rainer said. “They will give even when they’re hurting so the spiritual and physical needs of others are met.”
Offsetting the rise in giving, along with a slight increase in the total number of SBC churches and primary worship attendance, was the fourth consecutive year of decline in baptisms. Southern Baptists recorded 342,198 baptisms in 2008, a drop of 1.1 percent from the previous year.
“The numbers simply tell us that Southern Baptists are not reaching as many people for Christ as they once did,” Rainer said. “It still takes 47 Southern Baptists to baptize one person for Christ. I pray that all of our churches and our entities will become totally focused on obeying Christ’s commission so that our convention will truly experience a Great Commission resurgence.”
The number of baptisms is regarded as a key measurement of the Southern Baptist Convention’s overall effectiveness in evangelism. Baptism is a public act administered by the local church in which new followers of Christ are immersed in water. Baptism symbolizes believers’ identification with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection, signifies their new life in Christ and anticipates the day in which Christ will raise them from the dead, demonstrating His victory over sin and death.
Total SBC membership fell by 38,482, or 0.2 percent last year, to 16,228,438. Sunday school enrollment dropped 123,817, or 1.6 percent, to 7,752,794.
The total number of churches increased by 152 to 44,848, for a .34 percent gain. Primary worship attendance rose 35,449 to 6,184,317, an increase of .58 percent.
Rainer pointed out that numeric/percent changes for certain categories could not be accurately figured for the 2008 compilation. Some state conventions did not ask for certain items to be reported, or asked in a way that yielded results not comparable to totals reported in 2007.
Those categories and their 2008 totals include:
- Discipleship training enrollment: 1,798,330
- Total tithes, offerings and special gifts: $11.1 billion
- Music ministry enrollment / participation: 1,416,694
- WMU enrollment: 795,379
- Men / boys mission education enrollment: 403,575
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources.)